Combination of factors created biggest fire in Overland Park history

Five things to know: The Overland Park apartment fire

A massive eight-alarm fire consumed an apartment building under construction at a multimillion-dollar development in Overland Park on March 20. The blaze sparked fires at many homes in the nearby. The video includes footage from Overland Park Fire
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A massive eight-alarm fire consumed an apartment building under construction at a multimillion-dollar development in Overland Park on March 20. The blaze sparked fires at many homes in the nearby. The video includes footage from Overland Park Fire

The cause of an eight-alarm fire Monday at the CityPlace development in Overland Park was accidental, fire officials said Tuesday.

A welder working at the site accidentally ignited wooden building materials at a large building under construction, Overland Park Fire Marshal Mark Sweany said Tuesday evening.

“Investigators are confident the fire was caused by the accidental ignition of wooden building materials ignited by a welder conducting hot work at the site,” he said.

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Monday’s fire — the largest in Overland Park history — destroyed a four-story apartment building, damaged another and affected about 25 households.

The blaze created a nightmare for firefighters and rained flaming chunks of debris on surrounding neighborhoods, sparing some homes and damaging others at random.

By the time the first firefighters arrived on the scene, heavy flames roiled from the structure, unchecked by the kinds of fire breaks and sprinkler systems in place to protect completed modern structures.

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“Here’s one thing that is clear: This fire occurred in this building at its most vulnerable time,” Overland Park Fire Chief Bryan Dehner said Tuesday. “The other buildings that have stucco exteriors, sheet rock inside, sprinkler systems — the original building was not at that point. So that fire happened at a vulnerable time for that building’s construct.”

The intense heat generated by that inferno, as well as burning embers that landed on roofs and in yards, began to ignite fires on nearby houses. Other homes, farther away, were also hit by debris that was pushed by a steady wind of 10 to 15 mph.

“Certainly the wind played a role in the spread of the fire,” said John Ham, a Kansas City spokesman for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

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Many of the homes ruined by the fire Monday had wood shingle roofs, which Johnson County fire officials have long known pose a greater fire hazard than roofs made of composite materials.

Asked Tuesday about the role of wood roofs in the previous day’s damage, fire officials said they had seen both wood and composite roofs burned.

In an interview last year, Johnson County Fire District No. 2 Chief James Francis said state law changed years ago to stop homeowners associations from requiring wood roofs. Fire departments backed the shift because a burning wood roof can throw hot embers onto other houses, setting them alight, too.

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Overland Park Fire Department spokesman Jason Rhodes previously told The Star that wood shake shingles are more flammable than a composite roof, but there are upsides and downsides to both options.

“The wood may be more susceptible to fire; on the other hand, it can burn off and ventilate — let the heat out of the house,” Rhodes said.

Monday’s fire was so large that fire officials said their ultimate goal became ensuring that the fire, which originated near 113th Street and Switzer Road, did not spread past 119th Street. Fire crews tried to stop the spread of such fires by watering down surrounding buildings.

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Patrols surveyed the neighborhood Monday for fires that might reignite but may not yet have been noticed. Dehner said Tuesday evening that fire operations had ended at the original site, but patrols would continue through the night.

Nobody died or was seriously injured in the fire. Three firefighters were treated for minor injuries.

As of Tuesday morning, the neighborhoods touched by fire were still considered active crime scenes and a team of about 40 investigators from federal, state and local jurisdictions inspected the damaged homes and the original fire site to determine how and why the fire started. They also interviewed people whose homes were affected at a local church.

Sweany said the Fire Department’s investigation would end Tuesday evening.

Titan Built LLC, the construction company working on the apartment project, released a statement Tuesday expressing concern for the “health and welfare” of employees and surrounding neighbors.

“Titan Built has meticulous safety protocols in place; in our 42 year history, we have never experienced an incident such as this,” the statement said. “We are closely working with the fire department and actively participating in the investigation to determine the cause, all toward implementing preventative processes in the future.”

A number of witnesses reported hearing an explosion, which could have contributed to debris being hurled into the air and into the nearby neighborhood.

Dehner said the explosion was likely caused by the fire.

If Monday’s event had one silver lining, it was timing, fire officials said.

“If this would have happened at 2 in the morning, it would have been a different ball game,” Dehner told families Tuesday morning.

Ian Cummings and Steve Vockrodt contributed to this report.

Tony Rizzo: 816-234-4435, @trizzkc

Katy Bergen: 816-234-4120, @KatyBergen

Toriano Porter: 816-234-4779, @torianoporter

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